Moments before the start of Michigan’s spring game Saturday afternoon, a plane flew over Michigan Stadium. Behind it flew a sign reading, ‘Hey Jim, this is God. It’s OK to pass on first down. Let’s try it.’
An hour later, when the Wolverines lined up for their first 11-on-11 play of the day, Shea Patterson took the snap, sprinted to his right and pitched to senior running back Tru Wilson. Then came a jet sweep to freshman wide receiver Mike Sainristil before a zone run up the middle. Only on the fourth play from scrimmage did Patterson finally drop back and fire off his first pass of the day — one that went for a 15-yard gain to sophomore wide receiver Ronnie Bell.
The pre-game plane carried the optimistic hope for change that has defined Michigan’s offseason since it hired Josh Gattis as its new offensive coordinator on Jan. 10. And while aspects of that hope may be rooted in reality, Saturday’s spring game was a reminder that the Wolverines’ running game isn’t going anywhere.
“Gattis came in and did a great job adapting his own mindset and the offense,” said redshirt sophomore right tackle Andrew Stueber. “But he was very specific to say, it’s not his style, it’s our style as a team. So he’s not coming in playing strictly his own style, he’s kinda changing it to the whole team adapting their style. What worked last year will continue to work and what he can bring to the table, he will.”
But Saturday was also a reminder that this running game is different. For every remnant of the old — think redshirt freshman running back Julian Garrett getting stuffed on a third-and-goal carry up the middle — there were a handful of signs of the new.
Those first two plays of the game, a read option with Patterson and a jet sweep to one of the Wolverines’ fastest receivers, weren’t non-existent a year ago. But they wouldn’t have been Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh’s first two plays of any game, scrimmage or otherwise.
“We see a lot more long zone, a lot more stretches,” said sophomore defensive lineman Aidan Hutchinson. “It looks like he’s trying to stretch the field out and that’s what I’ve seen when I’ve gone against the offense.”
The available personnel certainly lends credence to hopes of a shift toward a pass-first offense. Karan Higdon and his 224 carries are off to the NFL, Chris Evans and O’Maury Samuels are no longer with the program and sophomore Christian Turner and early enrollee Zach Charbonnet have spent the spring injured, going through plays on a layout of a field that Michigan has in its running backs room.
But instead, the focus has merely shifted onto Wilson — the only running back who played last year to feature on Saturday — and the inexperienced underclassmen behind him. “I’m just building confidence,” Wilson said. “Just trying to be a leader more for some of the younger guys in the room and just be able to make plays, play fast. … But I’m really enjoying it, I’m really enjoying the style of play we’re in.”
And that — the style of play — is the key. Five months out from kickoff, it doesn’t matter that the personnel isn’t there yet. Charbonnet will inevitably be a major part of the offense and Turner likely will too.
For now, what matters is that Michigan’s offense is still going to run the ball. And when it does, it’s going to be a whole lot more exciting than it has in the past.
All you need to do to find that out that is ask the one defense who’s faced it:
“I’m tired of them going hurry up. It’s annoying,” said redshirt sophomore defensive lineman Donovan Jeter.
“… It’s a blessing and a curse cause there’s days when you’re dead tired but it’s gonna be like that on Saturdays. So I’m glad our offense has just changed the way they do everything.”